ISU speaker urges graduates to use degree as 'launching point'

Tribune-Star/Austen LeakeThankful: One graduate’s cap had this note about their mother at Saturday’s Indiana State University winter commencement at Hulman Center.

Young people graduating from college this spring will have quite a story to tell their grandkids someday.

Just toddlers on 9/11, they’ve never experienced boarding a flight without stripping off belts and shoes, or a time without war. They grew up during the Great Recession as their parents, grandparents and neighbors feared their livelihoods would vanish. Now, those 20-somethings have finished their last semester of college through Zoom sessions and enter a shell-shocked economy with Great Depression-like unemployment, thanks to an ongoing COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

If Mom and Dad reached adulthood in the Age of Aquarius, the Class of 2020 crosses that threshold in the Age of Uncertainty.

They would’ve been walking across the stage in caps and gowns this month to receive degrees. The pandemic has changed plans. Indiana State University will stage a virtual commencement for its 2,000 graduates at 2 p.m. Saturday. Rose-Hulman will do the same for 500 grads on May 30. Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, with 145 degrees and certificates to hand out, has postponed its commencement until June 20.

The American dream is still out there for 2020 grads. Right now, “it may just look a little different,” said Tradara McLaurine, executive director of the Indiana State University Career Center.

A survey of employers by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) on the pandemic’s impact on the job market awaiting college graduates shows a mix of employers forging ahead, operating cautiously or putting on the brakes. In NACE’s poll released May 11, 39% of employers plan to maintain their standard schedule of recruiting new workers this spring, while 38% said they’re waiting for the economic situation to unfold.

“Employers still want new graduates. That’s the good news,” said Susan Gresham, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College’s director of career development. “But they’re in a holding pattern.”

State shutdowns of businesses and services throughout the U.S. — aimed at curtailing a pandemic that has infected 1.4 million Americans and claimed more than 84,000 lives since February — have also left 20.5 million people without jobs. The nation’s unemployment rate shot to 14.7% in April, numbers not seen since the 1930s.

Employers survey by NACE last week showed a variety of responses to the pandemic shutdowns. Of those, 64.5% haven’t changed staffing levels, 19.4% have imposed a hiring freeze, 9.7% laid off workers, 8.6% enacted furloughs, 5.4% weren’t yet sure what they’ll do, 4.3% retained staff but cut hours, and 3.2% are increasing staff.

It’s a big change from February, when the nation’s jobless rate stood at a robust 3.5%. College seniors, then, expected to have employers competing to hire new recruits.

“There are going to be students who, just a few weeks ago, were entering the best job market ever, and now that’s become reversed,” said Greshman, now in her 30th year at The Woods. “So, there’s going to be a lot of angst.”

There’s a basis for hope, though.

Shutdowns have forced employers to use alternative methods of operating, from conducting meetings by video through Zoom and FaceTime apps, employees working from home via laptops and smartphones, and relaying documents by emails. College students are adept at such interactions, and companies want those skills, especially after witnessing the advantages of virtual and online operations.

Also, some fields continue to need more workers, such as health care, education and technology, McLaurine said. Others, like tourism and the airlines, are struggling. Thus, new college grads “may be looking at industries and companies they never thought of before,” she added.

Even the process of finding a job has changed, shifting in-person interviews and job fair conversations to online formats. Rose-Hulman sees placement of its spring graduates running strong, said Scott Tieken, director of the engineering college’s career services and employer relations. Its spring career fair, conducted virtually for the first time, drew 113 employers and 530 students.

“Yes, things have slowed, but that doesn’t mean recruiting has stopped, especially in [science, technology, engineering and math],” Tieken said.

Most Rose 2020 grads will be heading to in-person job situations, he said, though some may start by working remotely.

ISU spring graduates C.J. Brooks and Sarah Padan both landed jobs during winter, and will start working from home temporarily. Both feel fortunate to have secured jobs with unchanged start dates. They say some classmates have had job offers delayed or rescinded.

Brooks earned an ISU master’s degree in higher education student affairs, received a related job offer in February from Indiana University and will work his first month at IU remotely.

“I felt incredibly blessed to have gotten that sorted out and underway,” said Brooks, who also graduated from Terre Haute North High School.

Likewise, Padan said, “Thankfully, I’ve been one of the lucky ones.”

The 22-year-old from Terre Haute South earned her ISU bachelor’s degree in business marketing, with a minor in communications. She starts work on June 1 with General Electric Appliances in Louisville, Kentucky. She’ll work remotely for the first month or two. She’s grateful, now, that a couple of her professors incorporated video conferencing and classes.

“Thankfully, I’ve been preparing for this for a couple years,” Padan said, “even though I did not know it.”

Preparation helps overcome uncertainty.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

Mark Bennett has reported and analyzed news from the Wabash Valley and beyond since Larry Bird wore Sycamore blue. That role with the Tribune-Star has taken him from Rome to Alaska and many points in between, but Terre Haute suits him best.

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